The Poisoned Well

Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East

March 2018 9781849049542 288pp
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Almost fifty years after Britain and France left the Middle East, the toxic legacies of their rule continue to fester. To make sense of today’s conflicts and crises, we need to grasp how Western imperialism shaped the region and its destiny in the half-century between 1917 and 1967.

Roger Hardy unearths an imperial history stretching from North Africa to southern Arabia that sowed the seeds of future conflict and poisoned relations between the Middle East and the West. Drawing on a rich cast of eye-witnesses — ranging from nationalists and colonial administrators to soldiers, spies, and courtesans — The Poisoned Well brings to life the making of the modern Middle East, highlighting the great dramas of decolonisation such as the end of the Palestine mandate, the Suez crisis, the Algerian war of independence, and the retreat from Aden.

Concise and beautifully written, The Poisoned Well offers a thought-provoking and insightful story of the colonial legacy in the Middle East.


‘[Hardy] navigates the rocks and eddies of the region’s history with a sure touch and brilliant eye for detail. In The Poisoned Well he provides a superb overview of events from the early 19th century . . . Hardy skilfully zooms in on individual narratives, showing how major events were witnessed and influenced by observers at the time. His book is peopled with a variety of characters, great and humble, deftly sketched and brought to life.’ — Financial Times

‘Despite the familiarity of the subject matter, Mr Hardy provides us with a gripping and illuminating addition to this literature. He is even-handed throughout, passionate without being sentimental and has a great turn of phrase … He also has a particular talent … for simplifying complex situations on the ground for the benefit of his reader.’ — The Economist

‘[Hardy] provides a concise and lucid historical survey, enlivened by the first-hand accounts of participants.’ — The Tablet

‘[The Poisoned Well] recounts with verve and objectivity the British and French imperialist incursions into the Middle East.’ — The Muslim World Book Review

‘Roger Hardy’s lively new account of British and French imperialism in the region is bursting with memorable anecdotes, intriguing detail and splashes of colour that illuminate a canvas of power, greed and double standards – and other legacies left standing amidst the wreckage of the Palestine Mandate or Algerie Française.’ — Ian Black, LSE Review of Books

‘Roger Hardy distils the imperial past of the Middle East down to its essentials. Through memorable vignettes and powerful insights, he has produced a sharply-focused and brilliant history of the modern Middle East.’ — Eugene Rogan, author of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920

‘a vivid account of the half-century between 1917 and 1967 … The Poisoned Well is a lively and elegant book full of colorful details. Its 10 chapters knit together the many dramas of decolonization … [and] a rich cast of eye-witnesses … It is difficult to imagine the order that will eventually emerge from the current meltdown in the Middle East. But The Poisoned Well is a good place to understand many of the origins of today’s chaos.’ — Hurriyet Daily News

‘A short and popularly accessible history of the late colonial period in the Middle East, combining general comment and analysis with country by country studies. The author’s personal authority and sensibly quiet and judicious tone adds greatly to its general impression and effect.’ — Roger Owen, Emeritus Professor of Middle East History, Harvard University

‘Why is the Middle East plagued by perpetual conflict, violence, and misrule? The reasons are rooted in imperial history, and Roger Hardy unearths them skilfully in this concise, clearly-written, and accurate analysis. The Poisoned Well should be on every reading list for those who seek to understand today’s events in the region.’ — Thomas W. Lippman, Middle East Institute, Washington, DC; former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and author of Saudi Arabia on the Edge

The Poisoned Well offers a thought-provoking and insightful study of the colonial legacy in the Middle East. Clear, concise and beautifully written, the book is a pleasure to read.’ — Nigel Ashton, Professor of International History, London School of Economics

‘Roger Hardy recounts the saga of Western imperialism and its far-reaching inheritance, elucidating the roles played by the French, the British, the Russians, and the Americans in the formation of the modern Middle East, and tracing the emergence of the post-colonial states. He argues that Western imperialism poisoned relations between Middle Eastern societies and the West. The Poisoned Well stands out from other works on the subject for its concision, its insightful detail, and its apposite use of biography to humanise the big-canvas story he is telling. Written in an appealing, yet erudite, style, this book should appeal to specialists and non-specialists alike.’ — John Calvert, Professor of History, Creighton University

‘This historical drama is narrated through the memoirs of political leaders, diplomats and journalists who witnessed those times, making this book highly readable and rich in Governance, law and ethics.’ — International Affairs


Roger Hardy worked for more than twenty years as a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service. He is the author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam (2010) and is a Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies in Oxford.

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